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I Pass Like Night

About The Book

When Alexander Vine finishes his work day, he leaves his post as a doorman at Manhattan's exclusive Four Seasons restaurant -- and enters a nighttime landscape of chance and danger, excitement and reinvention in the city's erotic underworld. Walking a tightrope between sexual desire and self-extinction, Alexander Vine charts his destructive course -- and his struggle for redemption -- with startling, unadorned clarity.


Chapter One
I like this one whore on the lower East Side, her name is Goldie because of her teeth, and she's really sweet. She's a big black woman with big breasts and I saw her for the first time a few nights ago when it was too hot to sleep. I came out of my room around one A.M. and I walked down to Grand and she was there. She was wearing a black bra like a bikini and a tight black miniskirt and black high heels. I went past her slow and my eyes ran over her breasts and down her stomach and she smiled at me and she took the plastic straw out of her mouth that she was chewing on and she said real nice, "Ya goin' out honey?" And I said, "Yeahhh," real hesitant and shy and embarrassed like it was my first time, but I knew what we were going to do, and I came down there to do it, "I...I am."
"Well, come here honey, follow me."
So she took my hand and led me across the street. She took me into the old dark park with its broken fences, crumbling walls, and shadows that smell of piss and garbage and thrown away condoms.
"You wanna fuck or you wanna suck?"
I said fuck, real quiet and sweet in a whisper, and she said, "O.K., honey, I'll just bend over and you stick it right in." And that's what I wanted, to be lost in the great black ass of this great black woman twice my size. Lost in some hole I'm scared of, lost in the dark hole between her legs, my little white body, hips half the size of hers -- pulled in, sucked in, and lost forever. But she said, "That's gonna cost forty-five." And my great dream was crushed, and I was back in the park, back in reality, and I said, "I only got twenty." Which was stupid, because I knew I'd have to settle for a blow job, and once you tell a whore how much money you got you have to give them the whole thing. At least I do, because in a half-crazy way I'm scared of whores and I'd rather pay than get in a fight with one. Although if I had told her I only had ten dollars she would have given me a blow job just the same.
But Goldie was special, I almost feel as if I could trust her. She said, "No girl out here let you fuck for twenty, but I'll give you a blow job and let you play with my tits too." Now, she's out there like all the other whores to make some bucks, but she also wants to give you your money's worth. Not too many whores on the street are like that.
She asked for the twenty and I gave it to her, you always pay before things get started. She put the bill in her little purse and she dug around in there for a condom. I pulled my pants and underwear down and she said, "What's your name?" All the whores ask that, and I don't know why, maybe it's to make you feel comfortable, so usually I lie, but this time I didn't, I liked her, I said, "Alexander." She smiled and said, "I'm Goldie," and in the dark I could see her teeth.
She got the condom out and I felt a little embarrassed that I had pulled down my pants and underwear myself. I still wanted to play the game that I had no idea what was happening. I almost expected her to be surprised that my pants were down, but she didn't seem to notice. She put her hand on me to get me ready, but I was already hard, and she made a little whistling sound to make me feel good. She knelt down and rolled the dry condom on me -- whores use cheap ones that aren't lubricated. She said, "I gotta use the condom, honey, so nobody gets no germs." That was fine with me and she started sucking and I leaned back against the park wall and put my hand down her neck and into the tight crack between her moist, big, beautiful breasts.
We were hidden in the sunken part of the park, which must have been a children's playground once. Above the wall I leaned against was a row of old dark trees, a low iron fence, and some benches. On one of the benches off to the left I could make out two men sitting and watching Goldie give me a blow job. I figured they were old Bowery bums drinking or young kids shooting heroin. They probably sat there all night and watched a hundred guys drop their pants for the whores. Maybe more, I don't know. I've often wondered how many men street whores go with in a night. All those penises in their mouths and rotten, hairy crotches in their faces. That's why they suck on you like a machine, up and down they go as fast as they can. They open their mouths wide, then jab their heads back and forth like a piston, with the penis going all the way to the back of their throats. They want you to come as quick as possible so they can get back out on the street and make more money. The pleasure is not that great, at least not for me anyways.
Sometimes though something strange can happen, like being with Goldie. She was busy sucking away and I was busy with her tits, when suddenly she stopped, looked up at me, and said, "Come on baby, come for Mama!" That sounded good to me and gave me a little extra jolt, and they're always trying to rush you, but Goldie was nice about it, so I was about to come for her, to please her, when another whore appeared in the opening of the sunken area and whispered in a raspy, warning voice, "SQUAD, and they gonna do somethin', I can feel it." Goldie stood up, gave a quick look to the street, took her purse off the top of the wall, and told me, "Duck down, honey, there's a squad out there." She ducked down too, but made sure to hold on to my cock so it wouldn't go soft. I looked through the opening of the park and saw the police car at the corner about fifty yards away. I looked at Goldie and she was giving me an occasional quick suck and keeping her eye on the street at the same time. The car just lingered there and the whores were quiet, still, and waiting. Finally, the cops pulled away and the other whore said, "They gone, but they gonna come back."
I suddenly had incredible respect for these whores. In my mind I likened them to the great jungle cats of the Tarzan books I had read when I was young. These cats, Numa the lion and Sheeta the leopard, knew every creature that passed through the forest and knew what it would do. More whores came to hide in the park and they were all like those cats, hissing to one another "ssquad...sssquad...they comin'." I just kept my head below the wall and leaned back with my knees bent while Goldie sucked even more furious than before. I waited for the cops' spotlight to land on me and I wondered if they handcuffed prostitutes' johns and I almost hoped that they would come so I could run, so that my childhood games of escape from prison could come true.
They passed by again, but this time they didn't stop. They seemed to be stalking us, circling around the park, coming down Chrystie Street, then going up Forsythe. Under the streetlights I could see the car so clearly, as if it was the first police car I had ever seen. In my eyes it was almost beautiful, with its tubed, red roof light and the driver's blue arm hanging out the window. One of the whores said, "They only bluffin', they know we're in here and they gonna bring us all in, you better hurry up Goldie and get rid of your boyfriend." I knew I had better come soon or I wouldn't come at all, and I didn't want to waste the twenty bucks. But with all the excitement I had become distracted and Goldie could tell, so between sucks she started urging me, "Come on honey give me your juice...I want all of it baby...shoot it baby...shoot it!"
The other whores started laughing. Laughing at me. One of the whores said, "Tell 'em how to do it, Goldie, tell that boy how." And Goldie kept on saying, "Shoot it!" and they kept on laughing. I sort of wished that Goldie would say, "Do it for Mama," it had excited me a little before, and then maybe I could come, but I was too embarrassed to ask. So I tried to concentrate. I kept my dick in her mouth, my hand on her breasts, and my eyes on the street for the police.
Finally, I willed myself to come, although I barely felt it. She noticed a change in me, the end of the slight swaying of my hips.
"Did you come, honey?"
"Yes, I did."
"You sure?" She looked at me with concern. "Weeze gotta make sure you come, you been so nice."
"It's O.K., I'm fine."
"All right, goodnight, honey."
She walked away sexy and proud and the other whores left too. My pants were at my knees, the police hadn't come back, and I peeled the condom off my dick. It pulled on the hairs, and I hate that, and it was wet with her saliva. When I got it off I tossed it to the ground and tried to give a confident nod of my head to the guys on the bench in case they were looking. I pulled my pants up and I cut the opposite way from the whores through the long, dangerous park with shadows jumping at me from the corners my eyes.
I was running quick over the choppy pavement and broken glass and I leaped up part of the wall, and as I jumped I had a moment of elation. I was elated because Goldie was a good whore and let me touch her tits. I was elated because I was passing through a park "no one should walk through." And I was elated because I heard the other whores say squad and because they laughed at me.
I ran all the way back to my building and when I got to my metal door the cops cruised by and I looked to the corner, but Goldie wasn't there. She was a smart one and I was safe too and I climbed up the dirty stairs to my summer hot room and I went to the toilet. I took a long piss and I was glad because I always want to believe that if you piss after sex with a whore you won't get a disease. But then I looked at my penis and it was all red and abused looking. There was even a bit of ripped condom sticking to it. I wondered if it had ripped while she was sucking me, and I wondered if it did if a little bit of disease, all it takes, made it through that little rip and made contact with a little bit of me. I peeled off that piece of shredded condom and washed my dick, then dried it with a paper towel. I looked at myself in the mirror, at my red eyes and greasy nose. And I thought to myself, the most sobering thing in the world is to look in the mirror and see how ugly you really are.

Copyright © 1989 by Jonathan Ames

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide
1. How is the structure of the book important to how Alexander's story unfolds? Would it matter much if the story was told in a more linear fashion?
2. Look at the italicized portions of the book. Note both their content and their placement within the novel. Discuss what they mean in the context of the book. What do we finally learn about these passages at the end of the book?
3. What is the tone of the book and how does it serve the subject matter?
4. Alexander states that he's always had a longing to be a bum. Discuss how he is connected to the bums in the novel and what this says about his character.
5. Alexander is admittedly paranoid about sickness and death, yet he knows that his behavior, especially his sexual escapades, could very well result in sickness and/or death. What can be said about this?
6. Compare Alexander's nighttime activities with his daytime persona. Think about the "Mitzvah" chapter in particular.
7. Aunt Doll is always giving Alexander advice. Explain what role she plays in his life and how she figures in his exploits.
8. In the italicized portion that follows the chapter entitled "I Wanted To Know Why," Alexander says, "I'm a natural at these things." What does he mean? How does his tone affect how we read this passage?
9. It can be said that Alexander seeks acceptance in the nightlife on the streets of New York -- perhaps the same acceptance, in fact, he lacks from his family (read "You Conned Us"). What characters from the streets appear to mimic or replace familial roles for Alexander? Discuss how this is important to his character.
10. Joy is Alexander's girlfriend, and may be his one real chance at love. What other things might she represent both for Alexander and in the novel in general?
11. Discuss how sex and death are linked, literally and symbolically, in the novel. Look specifically at the chapters "Snowstorm" and "The Clinic."
12. Why does the book end the way it does? What, if anything, can we assume happens to Alexander?
Q: The structure of I Pass Like Night is interesting. How did you decide to put the novel together in non-linear vignettes? What purpose did you intend for the italicized portions to serve?
A: My idea for the construction of I Pass Like Night was to have it work as a mosaic: when looking up close at a mosaic one can only see fragments, but stand farther back and a coherent picture emerges. So in the case of this novel, my hope was that in the end, Alexander Vine's story would emerge from these torn-off pieces of his life. I was 22 when I started this book and I had this romantic, dark vision of how Alexander Vine was writing I Pass Like Night. He sits at a bare desk in the Bowery and when he finishes composing his adventures and his memories into stories (written by hand), he puts them on a tiny spike, like the kind of spikes that diners keep by their cash registers for the paid checks. So the order of I Pass Like Night would then occur by Alexander lifting the stories off the spike and the one that was on the bottom, the first story, begins it all. So hidden in this mosaic there is actually a linear structure. He starts writing in the summer, after his encounter with Goldie, and from that point forward all the episodes in the recent past -- interspersed with stories of the distant past -- follow the seasons. And just as his doorman jacket changes with each season, so does Alexander.
The purpose of the italicized sections was to capture a single moment, a single feeling. Whereas the longer pieces are more complex. Also, I wanted to give the reader a breath, like in music. The italicized sections are a chance to pause, yet they can also be read quickly. The idea being to keep the novel flowing by changing rhythm -- short chapters, long chapters, one page italicized moments.
Q: I Pass Like Night has been compared to The Catcher in the Rye. How do you feel Alexander Vine is similar, if at all, to Holden Caulfield?
A: One similarity is that both characters, though Holden more so, like to say what they don't like, what they hate. And I think both these characters learned to do this from Mark Twain's Huck Finn. Twain, I think, set in motion so many of the novels narrated by precocious and unusual youngsters. And Alexander Vine isn't as young as Holden Caulfield, or some of the others, but he shares with them the distinctiveness of having his own voice, as if this troubled youth was speaking directly to the reader.
Q: Who are some of your literary influences?
A: I'd like to answer this question by talking about the writers who influenced I Pass Like Night. From Hemingway, I stole the idea of the italicized sections. I was mesmerized by how he used them with such power and emotional effect in his first book, the collection of short stories In Our Time. It was also because of Hemingway that I tried to write the book in a clean prose style. And whenever I got stuck I often thought of his dictum from A Moveable Feast: "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." Raymond Carver, also of the Hemingway school I think, further influenced me to try to write clearly and coherently. The structure of the book was modeled after, to a certain degree, Jerzy Kosinski's Steps. The courage to not be afraid to write graphically about sex came from reading Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn, and also the Kosinski book. And there was one sentence where I tried to have a Jack Kerouac-like rhythm, and in another sentence I was looking to recreate the feeling of a Raymond Chandler sentence. Kerouac's books also played a part in helping foster my interest in bums, in listening to the people on the edge of the city. These are some of the influences that come to mind.

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Jonathan Ames is the author of I Pass Like NightThe Extra ManWhat’s Not to Love?My Less Than Secret LifeWake Up, Sir!I Love You More Than You KnowThe Alcoholic; and The Double Life Is Twice As Good. He’s the creator of the HBO® Original Series Bored to Death and has had two amateur boxing matches, fighting as “The Herring Wonder.” His most recent work is the detective novel A Man Named Doll

Product Details

  • Publisher: Washington Square Press (July 1, 1999)
  • Length: 176 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780671034269

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Raves and Reviews

Joyce Carol Oates Disturbing and funny...a striking debut.

Vanity Fair Jonathan Ames's acclaimed fictional odyssey inside New York City's sexual underground is the first novel from this arresting and original writer. Bleakly funny, fiercely moving, this starkly rendered chronicle of a young man's secret life is both unforgettable and "unabashedly shocking."

Philip Roth An authentic voice of youthful suffering. Mr. Ames's antisocial young hero comes through as a cross between Jean Genet and Holden Caulfield in the age of AIDS. The style is the real achievement: strong, clean, and poker-faced.

Joyce Carol Oates Cinematic in its short, graphic takes, chilling in its authority....A disturbing and often funny portrait of a man without illusions.

USA Today Evokes the lean style of Raymond Carver.

Kirkus Reviews Impressive...Ames set[s] down haunting urban scenes in a spare style that works like poetry.

Time Out London Unerringly builds up an accurate portrait of a dissolute young man floundering in a sea of amorality.

The Times Literary Supplement London This is New York at street level. Ames is something of a gambler [but he] negotiates the pitfalls with remarkable dexterity....There is an unforced sadness at the heart of this novel, and there lies the proof that the gamble has succeeded.

Dallas Morning News Crazy, frightening, poignant, funny encounters...utterly fearless in its unsentimental depiction of a young man courting self-destruction.

Booklist Ames makes [Alexander Vine] as horrifying an emblem of American young manhood as the coke-snorters of Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero.

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